Lessons From My First Eight Months as a Full-time Freelance Photographer

Lessons From My First Eight Months as a Full-time Freelance Photographer

Last October, I finally made the jump from part-time freelance into the world of being a full-time creative. It has been a rollercoaster ride of epic proportions, but here are the things I have learned so far.

Previously, I held down two jobs. Through the day, I would work nine hours as a spray painter, and then, once my son went to bed, I would jump straight into my photography work in the evenings. I did this for seven years, slowly building up clients and connections until I reached the tipping point. To me, being full-time was the end goal, and as soon as the moment came, I jumped feet first into a whole new lifestyle. I've always been the type to rush in and learn as I go. I'm a trial and error type of guy. This type of gung-ho method is usually not for the faint-hearted, but it forces you to learn fast. And if you fail, they are harsh lessons which you won't forget. My eight months have been littered with these lessons.

As I sat down and pondered what to write for my first Fstoppers article, I thought what better way than to pass on what I've learned in the hope it prepares you for when you take the leap. What is the point of learning if you can't pass on that knowledge to help others? So, here are the most important things I have learned.

Networking

This probably seems very obvious, but networking is without a doubt one of the most important areas you will need to focus on. And it has to be done in person. With the rise of social media, it is so easy to connect with others now. With one click of a button, you can speak to someone thousands of miles away. But I believe this has made us lazy. \ We forget about actual human interaction. Face-to-face conversation can form a relationship so much stronger and in a far shorter amount of time than any email or Facebook message ever will. You have probably heard this a thousand times, but it's not what you know, it's who you know. How are you ever going to get that big advertising job if you don't know anyone at Nike or even the agency who Nike trusts their brand with? You can cold-email people until your send button finger drops off.

If you haven't cultivated any relationships or built trust with the gatekeepers who stand in your way, then you are going to struggle. All my big jobs have been the result of in-person networking. Don't get me wrong, social has its benefits, but likes and comments do not equal paid work. You have to get out there and work it! Don't tell people how passionate you are about your work, show them! 

Become a Salesman

Being an Englishman, it is in my DNA to be modest, to shy away from praise and talk down my achievements. 'Tis the English way (stiffens his upper lip). I would tell people that I want my work to speak for itself. The typical artist's deflection. If you wait around for people to come to you, you are going to be in for a rough ride. It does help if your work is great, but great work doesn't always mean success.

How many amazing artists/photographers have you known that are struggling? But then, flip that and try to think how many times you have seen an average photographer with a very successful business. The difference is one knows how to sell his services and the other doesn't. If I had one piece of advice for anyone starting out as an amateur photographer, it would be to learn sales and marketing. Period!

Stop Marketing to Other Photographers

I think we all do this or have done it at some point. Other photographers are not going to pay for your services. Yes, the likes and comments are nice, and it is good to build community and create connections. But they are the least likely audience to pay for any kind of service you are offering. Take the time to sit down and work out who your target audience is. Plan out how to get your work in front of them. Then, do everything in your power to make it happen!

Money

Deposits

I could write a whole essay on this, but here is my advice: deposits! Don't start any work without them. They are there to create security for you. If a client is against deposits, then they are not your client. If they like and respect your work, there shouldn't be an issue. I would suggest 50% up front and 50% on completion.

Invoices

This is one of the rare industries in which you have to chase your wage on completion of the job. Many clients will hold on to your paycheck for as long as possible. They will dodge phone calls and emails. Be ruthless in getting that dough. It's yours, and you are owed it. It's such a shame to say it, but it's common knowledge that most invoices tend to end up overdue. This is one area I wish us, as freelancers, would make more noise against this kind of behavior. Just be sure to have some savings on hand to cover expenses while you get that money into your bank.

Be Very Proactive

As I mentioned earlier, you can't sit around for clients to come to you or hope that you will be noticed by that one person who plucks you from obscurity and turns you into an overnight success. It just doesn't happen. Even those you perceive to be an overnight success have usually put in years of work behind the scenes. You have to be proactive! You have to forge your career out of hard work, persistence, action, and discipline.

Create lists, craft up task sheets, get up earlier, meet as many people as possible, hand out business cards, build relationships, over-deliver, smile more! Wake up with the attitude that every single day is a new day full of opportunities waiting to be explored. You will probably work more hours than you did in your day job, but who cares!? Eventually, you will reap something far more rewarding. Your legacy! Go get it!

Health

Your life is only as good as your health. As a freelancer, you have many battles ahead of you, not just physical (the late nights, early mornings) but also mentally. If you want to perform at high-level every day, you are going to have to make sure that your body can keep up. Bad diet and lack of exercise can lead to low energy, bad decisions, anxiety, and depression — all the ingredients for a burn-out pie! And that is the last thing we need. If you are struggling, see if you can squeeze in at least 20 minutes of exercise a day. Eat your greens. Get out of the office, and breathe in the fresh air. And most important, smile more! 

And Last but Not Least, Be Yourself!

Be as true to yourself as possible. Create the work you want to create! People will try to get you to water down your style, be more like someone else. Politely say no. If a client wants you to be something else, they are not your client. You are where you are right now because of who you are. Do not change that. Listen to others, but ultimately, follow your own instincts. Be kind. Be humble. Don't hold grudges; we are all flawed human beings trying to make our way through this crazy world. Stay laser-focused and follow your dreams. Do not let anyone create your life for you. You hold the power. Take ownership and get out there and do it!

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19 Comments

Andrzej Muzaj's picture

Hi Clinton! Thank you for sharing your story! That's awesome you've made that leap to photography. I'm thinking about it myself, but I still have time to hone my skills and build some base for my business. I wish you luck and another years full of great projects! :)

Lee Christiansen's picture

Never "deposit", always a "booking fee" or "retainer."

In the UK at least, deposits have to be repaid if requested, even if things are cancelled at last minute. It is a legal definition which makes all the difference.

I'm not a lawyer so I could be wrong about this, but at least in the US, I've read that none of those 3 words actually have any legal merit to the concept you're describing. I believe the term is "liquidated damages" and it should be included in the contract

But if there are any lawyers reading this I'd be interested in their take.

Dan Marchant's picture

I believe the issue is that, in many places, it is illegal to charge money when no goods or service have been supplied. Hence a 50% deposit/retainer must be refunded unless you can demonstrate that you have done half the job/incurred significant expenses. If all you did was write a date in the calendar you would be hard pressed to convince a judge that that was worth half the total cost of the wedding.

Excellent article and work.
Valuable info here for everyone.
"Being an Englishman, it is in my DNA to be modest" Does this mean that Boris is not English? ;)
Seriously, that is an issue for many as we are scolded for vanity.

Clinton Lofthouse's picture

Hahaha Thanks, Indy

Jordan McChesney's picture

“I held down two jobs. Through the day, I would work nine hours as a spray painter, and then, once my son went to bed, I would jump straight into my photography work in the evenings. I did this for seven years, slowly building up clients and connections until I reached the tipping point.”

This is pretty much where I am, now. Just started a website and I’m trying get more eyes, and the right eyes, on my work. One of the hardest parts has been constantly explaining to people around me that “this sh*t takes time.” Japan is a country that very much likes its 9-6 office work obtained through the submission of paperwork, so the concept of photography as a job has actually left a few people I’ve talked to dumbfounded.

Also, the part about great work not equaling success is one that more people need to understand, and it goes both ways. Success doesn’t always mean great work. I try to stay as humble as one can be while trying to market themselves, but I’ve seen pros who get tons of work with lower quality work than some of the hobbyists here. The worst part is when they work with other photographers who have ignored you because you don’t have a following. Sometimes having that X-factor is the most important thing, and rather than dwelling on things, it’s best to find out what they have that you don’t.

At the end of the day, all we can do is keep pushing forward and hope we meet the right person at the right time... I guess photography is kind of like love, isn’t it? Haha.

Thanks for sharing, it was a great read.

Clinton Lofthouse's picture

Thanks, Jordan. The key to this game is persistence! If you keep on persisting every day.......something will give. You will get a breakthrough.

Eric Crudup's picture

I like articles like this but wish it was more in-depth. For instance, networking. What other photographers do specifically to network, and what actions they take to sustain previously forged relationships. Going in depth in any of these bullet points would make a great article. Or going more in depth into all of them in multiple articles. Hey, I just gave you some ideas for future posts!

Going in-depth means breaking one of the marketing rules he had learned: Do not share your full "recipe".

Alec Kinnear's picture

There are whole dedicated books and websites on networking. No shortage of information. The author gives you the key hint – who is your target market? Spend time with people who commission that kind of work. Photography favours the well off, as they have jobs in advertising and marketing and like hanging out with birds of a feather. If you don't belong, work on belonging.

The wedding photography circuit starts by shooting friends and family for not much money while the gigs get better as you overperform. Journalism pay is awful these days but you should hang with newspaper editors and feature writers if that's what you want. The author spent *seven years* working two jobs to make it as a photographer.

That's the price of admission: years and years of dedication to your craft while picking up occasional underpaid gigs. The exceptions prove the rule.

Clinton Lofthouse's picture

....I may just do that haha

Shavonne Wong's picture

Great article Clinton! 9 years into photography, 5 years full time and it's still a good reminder (:

Clinton Lofthouse's picture

Thank you so much Shavonne :) Its good to have little reminders now and again. Love your work btw! :)

Great story, thank you for sharing. Amazing work, and best of luck on your new full time venture!